Thursday, May 20, 2010

Out of the way, please

Against a backdrop of farm output that is lower than last year’s, and with newly distributed farmlands not yet being used to their potential, Cuba’s small farmers association (ANAP) held their conference last weekend and called for some policy changes.

ANAP’s members are individual farmers and members of two kinds of cooperatives; according to the economy minister, they have 41 percent of Cuba’s farmland and produce nearly 70 percent of the value of farm production.

The recommendations are in an ANAP document summarizing the conference’s treatment of issues affecting farm production. In addition to calling for “resolving the problem of credits” for new landholders, it calls for several changes in the distribution system that have the common thread of asking the government to get out of the way.

About 30 percent of these producers’ output goes to farmers markets, where prices move according to supply and demand. The rest is contracted by the state, and ANAP is calling for several changes: expanding direct sales to consumer outlets, as is already occurring in the case of milk; allowing cooperatives to contract directly with state enterprises; and allowing cooperatives to sell directly to hotels and restaurants in the tourism sector.

All these measures would reduce if not end the role of the acopio, the agriculture ministry’s enterprises that collect, transport, and distribute food. Which may be why things are moving slowly.

Sales to the tourism sector is a non-issue as far as the Cuban public is concerned, but it’s a good indicator of the dead weight of bureaucracy and regulation on Cuban agriculture. Amazingly, Cuba imports some fruit and vegetables every year, almost certainly because the state enterprises that are charged with supplying the tourism sector fail to perform. Surely, if Cuban farmers and cooperatives were able to contract directly with hotels and restaurants, all would benefit: higher farm income (including hard currency income), lower import bills for the government, better food in restaurants (not to mention stable supplies of fruits and vegetables that can often be found in farmers markets but not in nearby hard-currency restaurants), and a better product for tourists. The loser would be one state enterprise that would be rendered unnecessary.

The fact that ideas such as these appear in an ANAP document are no guarantee that they will be adopted. But I would bet that things will continue moving in the direction of decentralized sales and distribution. ANAP is a “mass organization,” part of the Revolution; these ideas are coming from inside the tent.

Sources cited above: Cuban Colada summarizing the official statistics showing drops in selected areas of production, and the economy minister’s speech indicating that of the 920,000 hectares of farmland recently distributed, half remain unused or under-used.

Also, coverage from IPS, the Herald, AP, and Juventud Rebelde.

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